What is “original” journalism anyway?

May 30, 2005

The latest wave of rectification to sweep the country’s newsrooms concerns intellectual theft. USA Today forced out its Pentagon correspondent for using quotes that had appeared elsewhere. A reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was canned for alleged plagiarism. Best-selling author Mitch Albom was the focus of a full-court probe over whether he should have taken material from other papers for his Detroit Free Press sports columns. Plagiarism detection software is said to be all the rage among news overseers.

Sounds like a worthy cause. But if you stare awhile at the notion of originality in journalism the picture goes fuzzy.

With a novel or poem we know what we mean by originality: The writer created something fresh and unique, gave us something new and different.

But journalists? They’re not supposed to be original. They’re forbidden to originate things. They don’t invent characters or plots. Their whole job is to find and convey realities, words, ideas from somewhere else. They gather up bits of string and tie them together. They write to formula.

It isn’t their originality we value. Indeed, we even insist their accounts remain faithful to the material they’re based on. We call that accuracy.

Hence, journalism is quintessentially derivative. Strictly speaking, the journalist who’s being original should be fired.

Plus, journalists work now in an informational environment of unprecedented abundance. It is virtually professional malpractice not to sweep the Internet for relevant stuff. So how wrong is it to lift material from elsewhere if the real sin isn’t the lifting, but the failure to cover up the lifting by paraphrasing skillfully?

In short, what is intellectual theft for journalists? And above all, does the public that the journalist ultimately serves have a stake in any of this?

Let’s take a practice that used to be routine and now is reviled. I write a news story and include comments from somebody I didn’t talk to. I don’t tell you I got them from another paper. Why is that bad?

Two reasons. First, if the comments haven’t been reported so widely that they’re basically public domain – like the president’s remarks in a news conference – you will figure I’m vouching for the accuracy of the quotes. And I can’t. By concealing my source I’ve misled you about the authenticity of the report. That matters.

The second problem may matter less: I’ve helped myself to somebody else’s work. The reporter who tracked down and spoke to the source got no recognition.

Naturally, as a reader you’re chiefly interested in whether the quotes are accurate. You don’t much care if I confirm them and write: “Smith reiterated what he told The Middletown Bugle…”

And besides, nobody’s actually crediting the reporter who got that first interview anyway. Attribution customarily goes to the newspaper that ran the earlier story, not the journalist who wrote it. It’s like crediting a novel’s publisher for the novelist’s prose.

But this is not an arcane issue without public importance. In fact, I think the emergence of intellectual theft as a hot topic – even though the current management response has at times been ridiculously harsh — may mean that a new journalism ethic is finally coalescing around an obligation to respect precedence.

Respect for precedence – acknowledging work that preceded and materially contributed to your own — gives us a handle on the worst form of intellectual theft in journalism, which is practiced not by individuals but by institutions. It’s when whole stories reported by smaller organizations are appropriated, re-reported and published by market-dominant media, which never mention who broke them.

Here, I think the public suffers. How important information comes to light is itself important information. If lesser news outfits ferret out hard-to-get scoops we should know that. We might support smaller media more generously, and the upshot would be stronger, richer and more diverse information sources.

On the big media end, we’d get sharper competition. The reporter who relies on tips from specialized publications her editor never sees – and which she’s not expected to cite – is coasting. If big media credited story sources, their staffs would be embarrassed into trying to outdo the initial reporting. Again, the public benefits.

So there is logic to recognizing precedence. And if media chiefs are serious about intellectual theft, they will focus not on minor attribution lapses by hard-pressed reporters. They will start by enacting policies that commit their institutions to give credit when it’s due, even when that hurts.

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